(Nairobi, November 8, 2023) – Burkina Faso’s military junta is using a sweeping emergency law against perceived dissidents to expand its crackdown on dissent, Human Rights Watch said today. Between November 4 and 5, 2023, the Burkinabe security forces notified in writing or by telephone at least a dozen journalists, civil society activists, and opposition party members that they will be conscripted to participate in government security operations across the country.
The transitional military authorities assert that the conscription orders are authorized under the April 13 “general mobilization,” part of a plan to recapture territory lost to Islamist armed groups, which control roughly half of the country. The plan seeks to create a “legal framework for all actions” to be taken against insurgents and gives the president extensive powers to combat the insurgency, including requisitioning people and goods and restraining civil liberties.
“The Burkina Faso junta is using its emergency legislation to silence peaceful dissent and punish its critics,” said Ilaria Allegrozzi, senior Sahel researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The government should not respond to the abusive Islamist armed groups with further human rights abuses but should instead strengthen efforts to protect civilians and uphold basic rights to freedom of expression and speech.”
By targeting individuals who have openly criticized the junta, the conscription undertaken in Burkina Faso violates fundamental human rights, Human Rights Watch said.
The recent notifications for conscriptions targeted, among others, Bassirou Badjo and Rasmane Zinaba, members of the civil society group Balai Citoyen; Daouda Diallo, prominent rights defender, secretary-gfeneral of the Collective Against Impunity and Stigmatization of Communities (Collectif contre l’Impunité et la Stigmatisation des Communautés, CISC), and laureate of the 2022 Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders; Gabin Korbéogo, president of the Burkina Faso Democratic Youth Organization (Organisation Démocratique de la Jeunesse du Burkina Faso, ODJ); and the journalists Issaka Lingani and Yacouba Ladji Bama.
Domestic civil society groups, media organizations, and trade unions have strongly condemned what one called the “selective and punitive” application of the “general mobilization” decree. In a November 6 statement, the Burkinabe Movement of Human and Peoples’ Rights (Mouvement Burkinabè des Droits de l’Homme et des Peuples, MBDHP) said the general mobilization “has been specifically designed and adopted not to contribute to the fight against terrorism,” but to repress critical opinions.
Human rights activists and journalists told Human Rights Watch they feared being conscripted. “This wave of notifications is affecting people’s mental wellbeing,” said an independent journalist living in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso’s capital. “I am asking myself if I will be next.”
Some said they decided not to publicly criticize the conscriptions to be able to continue their work. “A human rights defender is useful to others only if he is alive and free,” an activist from the North region said. “I need to keep working and serve my community, and I cannot do so if I am sent to the front.”
On September 6, the media reported the army had conscripted an anesthesiologist, Arouna Louré, following a Facebook post in which he commented on the military response to the Islamist insurgency. He was sent to Koumbri, Yatenga province, one of the most dangerous areas in the country’s North region, to support the military medical services there. On September 5, the day before Louré was conscripted, Islamist fighters killed at least 17 soldiers and 36 volunteers assisting the military in Koumbri, in one of the deadliest attacks against the security forces since the beginning of the year.
While governments are empowered to conscript members of the civilian population over age 18 for the national defense, there are limits that the junta has far overstepped. Human Rights Watch takes the position that conscription should not take place unless it has been authorized and is in accordance with domestic law. The conscription law needs to meet reasonable standards of fairness in apportioning the burden of military service. It needs to be carried out in a manner that gives the potential conscript notice of the duration of the military service and an adequate opportunity to contest being required to serve at that time. Conscription also needs to be carried out according to standards consistent with nondiscrimination and equal protection under law.
Under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), certain rights may be restricted under a state of emergency but must be tailored to the “exigencies of the situation,” while other rights may not be derogated—suspended—under any circumstances. The United Nations Human Rights Committee (HRC), the independent expert body that monitors state compliance with the ICCPR, has said restrictions on free expression should be constructed and interpreted narrowly and the restrictions “may not put in jeopardy the right itself.” Under the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, no derogation of charter rights is allowed, even during a time of emergency.
Since it took power in an October 2022 coup, the military junta has increasingly cracked down on the media and peaceful dissent, shrinking the civic space in Burkina Faso.
National and international journalists face increasing harassment, threats, and arbitrary arrests. In April, the military authorities expelled two journalists working for the French newspapers Libération and Le Monde following their reports on human rights abuses by the army. In August, Burkinabe military authorities suspended the independent radio station Radio Omega for one month after it broadcasted an interview with supporters of Niger’s ousted president, Mohamed Bazoum. In September, the junta suspended the Paris-based news outlet Jeune Afrique, accusing it of publishing “misleading” articles seeking “to discredit” the national armed forces.
In late October, at least 15 civil society organizations and trade unions called for a mass meeting in Ouagadougou to commemorate the popular uprising of October 30 and 31, 2014, that ended the power of then-President Blaise Compaoré. The groups also challenged the transitional government about the deterioration of the security situation, high cost of living, poor governance, and corruption. On October 28, the Ouagadougou mayor called on the organizers to cancel their meeting due to potential “disturbances to public order.” The meeting did not take place.
“Providing security for the people of Burkina Faso demands a long-term commitment to promote respect for human rights,” Allegrozzi said. “Using conscription to silence dissent will neither advance the junta’s efforts against the Islamist insurgency nor improve the deteriorating rights situation in the country. The government should immediately end this misuse and abuse of conscription.”